The Mailbag: The Challenge of Challenging

Posted by Michael Getler on

A fair amount of mail landed in the ombudsman’s mailbox this week following the PBS NewsHour broadcast on Wednesday evening, Dec. 14. The mail dealt with two segments on the broadcast, each one roughly seven-and-a-half minutes long, one dealing with an interview with white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, and the other with Sean Spicer, chief strategist and communications director for the Republican National Committee.

What follows is a sampling of letters from viewers about these segments and then some thoughts of mine on both presentations. I’ve also included videos of both of these interviews farther down in the posting so you can judge for yourself how they unfolded.

But first, just a general observation from me. Given what we have been through for the past 18 months or so, much has already been written about how the press needs to challenge its sources—and, especially, those it interviews on live television—more aggressively than in the past because of the huge amount of falsehoods to which we have all been exposed. This is a lot easier for newspaper reporters to do than it is on live television news programs.

Nevertheless, my own sense is that it is, in fact, being done more and more by television interviewers on mainstream networks, and some cable outlets, which is a good thing. But it is tough in real-time.

You need to be well prepared and informed about a lot of subjects, sure of your material, able to recall it on split-second notice and also understand that some viewers will not appreciate or respect you or your information if they feel their candidate or representative is being challenged or attacked. Then you or your network can get attacked and pressured in return. That goes with the territory and reporters and their bosses must not back away from legitimate interjections, challenges and corrections.

Here Are Some of the Letters. First, on Richard Spencer:

I've been watching the show since its inception. Please explain why Richard Spencer [12/14] deserves to be interviewed. I'm all for balanced reporting. But to dignify and put him on the same level as leaders of other movements seems to give his movement a legitimacy it does not deserve.

Richard Schwartz, Minneapolis, MN

~ ~ ~

I think it is disgraceful that you provide a platform for Richard Spencer to espouse his racist views. It is startling that your "news" organization deems such fringe elements as newsworthy.

Robert Waterman, Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

The PBS NewsHour report on the Alt-Right presentation at Texas A&M did not adequately report [12/14] on the pro-diversity protest rally. The final video clip of students marching could easily have been interpreted as alt-right support, since the voice over did not adequately emphasize the opposition to the alt-right presentation. A clarification should be aired.

Robert Walsh, Austin, TX

Letters About the Interview with Sean Spicer

In Judy Woodruff's 12/14/16 interview with Sean Spicer, she raised the issue of Russia's interference with our recent election. Mr. Spicer spoke at length about our current administration's assurances that our disparate election systems makes it unlikely that vote counts could be altered. I was disappointed that Ms. Woodruff did not concur, and then follow up by asking him about the fact that the alleged Russian hacks discredited Secretary Clinton and other Democrats exclusively, leaving Mr. Trump and other Republicans unscathed. It was the drip, drip, drip of damaging leaks over several months that pulled focus from all of Secretary Clinton's position statements and put all Democrats' campaigns on defense, while providing fodder for Mr. Trump's tweet storms. Was that not as serious, if not more so, than attempted tampering with ballot boxes?

I hold the PBS NewsHour in high esteem. Nevertheless, I am discouraged by media coverage that allows partisan operatives to make outrageous allegations unchallenged, or in this case with Mr. Spicer, to avoid answering questions by not following up…That said, Ms. Woodruff and her colleagues are far superior to the airheads on the major networks with their focus on weather, celebrity (e.g. Trump meets Kanye), and puppy dog stories, and to the echo chambers of cable news.

Brunswick, ME

~ ~ ~

When will Judy Woodruff toughen up and start asking the hard questions. Tonight she had Spicer on and allowed him to blow back against her that the US election apparatus was quite safe from Russian hacking and that the concerns were democrat/liberal bias. The appropriate response was that the hacking led to INFLUENCE. But she didn't go the extra step and call him on his evasion.

Dirk Mundt, Lancaster, VA

~ ~ ~

I was just watching Judy Woodruff's interview of someone on Trump's team (I think his name is something like Spicer) re the transition, Russia's hacking, etc. He answered exactly as you would expect, and she just let his "answers" stand without re-challenging anything he said.

Sarasota, FL

~ ~ ~

On Climate Change

Can someone tell Judy Woodruff that when she is interviewing someone regarding climate change that her lead in should not be "most scientists believe in man-caused climate change." That's misleading. First, don't use the word scientists. Geologists and botanists are scientists and they aren't experts on climate change. Say climatologists. And 97-98% percent of climatologists believe in climate change due to human activities. Don't use the word most or say a majority. That could be 51%. It's 97-98% and that's a lot more than most! So the lead question to a climate change denier should be that 97-98% of climatologists believe in climate change and all the published peer reviewed climate papers validates this fact. Is there one peer reviewed article that disputes human-induced climate change? Judy lets them assert that the science is unsettled. No it's not! This is the most important issue facing the planet.

Terrence O'Brien, Sacramento, CA

~ ~ ~

This evening during the NewsHour Judy stated that "most" scientists agree that we are experiencing climate change. The National Academy of Science states that 95% of scientists agree that climate change is a reality and is caused by human activity. "Most" is Not 95% and surely accuracy should be the standard. I hope this is not the new language that pbs is going to use since Trump winning the election!

James Carlson, St. Paul, MN

~ ~ ~

It was a disservice to viewers to have an extensive discussion on PBS Newshour re the selection of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State with no mention of Exxon's heinous failure to disseminate its findings to the public and to stockholders re the threat of global warming.

Thomas Manaugh, Dallas, TX

~ ~ ~

Watching the nightly PBS NewsHour, we feel that there is more of a leaning to The Right and believe that interviewees related to Trump and his appointees are not called to answer for the lies that they tell on the PBS NewsHour. The interviewees are not challenged for their disinformation. They must be made responsible for what they say; fact check!

Melinda Gladstone, Camano Island, WA

~ ~ ~

When asking questions of the Trump people...why are they so passively accepting their answers? Answers should be challenged and these Trump spokespersons should not be given unchallenged presentations. Please stop this Passive PBS form of questioning

David Mayers David, Aptos, CA

My Thoughts on the Spencer Segment

It is understandable that viewers question the NewsHour as to why they would give exposure to what the program describes, in the online introduction to the transcript of the interview, as “a leader of the so-called ‘alt-right’—a mix of white nationalism, neo-Nazi beliefs and hard-edged populism—who has energized a tiny group of passionate followers.”

And introducing the segment, program anchor Judy Woodruff put it this way on the air: “White nationalist groups say that Donald Trump’s electoral victory was also a win for their brand of white identity politics. A man named Richard Spencer has helped to shape this racist ideology. He has gained notoriety in recent weeks for statements that most find abhorrent, but that have increased his following.”

I thought that was a tough but accurate setting of the scene, and made clear why this is indeed news that is important to report on and gain insight into. Nobody really knows how large a mind-set such groups represent and it is best to know something about at least one leader who has stuck his head—and his arm—up publicly.

But the real value of this interview, I felt, personally as a viewer, was the alert, no-punches-pulled questioning of Spencer by the NewsHour's Foreign Affairs Producer P. J. Tobia, who carried out the actual interview. I thought it was among the best and most challenging interviews I’ve seen on a major newscast during this long political season. Spencer may represent a small number of people. We don’t really know. But the subject we know all too well, and it is a big one. So that’s news.

Here’s the segment:

…And on the Spicer Segment

This was an interview by NewsHour anchor Woodruff with Sean Spicer, who wears two hats as chief strategist and communications director of the Republican National Committee and as an adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.

As I watch the NewsHour, Woodruff carries a huge load, especially since the passing of her co-anchor Gwen Ifill last month. She does what seems to me more interviewing of guests herself and on more subjects than any other major network anchor and is well-prepared on so many of the issues that come at us 24/7 these days. But if I were scoring this particular bout with Spicer, I’d give the round to Trump’s communicator.

I thought this was an attempt by the program, perfectly understandable, to touch on lots of subjects when you have one of the president-elect’s closest advisers opposite you. But the result, it seemed to me, was lack of follow-up and some unfortunate phrasing that Spicer quickly sensed and took effective advantage of.

Here is the video of that segment:

Here is the segment of the program where I think Spicer gained an advantage and where viewers who wrote to me sensed it immediately and jumped on it, especially the use of the word “most” when it came to describing the scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is warming and that human activity is a big contributor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the president-elect still believe, as he said on the campaign trail, that the science behind climate change is still not settled, in other words, something that most climate scientists say is absolutely correct?

SEAN SPICER: Well, I think you just said it yourself, most. And I think that’s where his head is at. He understands that there’s elements of man, mankind that affect climate, but the exact impact of it and what has to be done to change that is something there is some dispute about within the community, not just science, but within the industry.

And here…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about another one of president-elect’s choices, and that’s Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. We have heard, yes, a number of Republican senators are on board, but several say they have concerns. Marco Rubio says his concerns are serious. John McCain said — quote — he has concerns about what kind of business we do “with a butcher, a murderer, and a thug,” which is how he describes Vladimir Putin. How do you respond to this?

SEAN SPICER: Well, with all due respect, Judy, that’s two. That’s not several.

And, finally, I would also agree with those viewers who felt Spicer, skillfully, was able to turn a legitimate question about Russian efforts, according to the CIA, to tilt the election in favor of Trump into an irrelevant argument about secure voting machines and the electoral system.

Posted on Dec. 16, 2016 at 3:18 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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